This interview originally aired on February 19, 2020. We rebroadcast it on May 13, 2020.
Julie Amacher, Classical MPR
He performed at the Royal Wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle in 2018. Two years earlier, at the age of 17, he won the BBC's Young Musician Competition. And he's appeared on Britain's Got Talent with his six musical siblings. Yet, cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason, who is just 20 years old and still studies at the Royal Academy of Music, is grounded in the music he loves. He's just released his second solo recording. It features Elgar's Cello Concerto in E minor and other pieces that are close to his heart.
"What I'm always searching for is the most convincing and expressive way to play the music that I'm playing. There are lots of pieces of music that I really, really want to learn. I think meaningful playing is what I practice for."
Your new recording is your second release, and it gives you a chance to work with one of your heroes, Sir Simon Rattle. What surprised you the most about working with him and the London Symphony Orchestra. Was there anything unexpected?
"How really, really supportive they were. As a young musician, it could be intimidating to work with such an amazing orchestra and such an amazing conductor. But I felt very supported, and that was really encouraging and lovely to have."
Did you really start to plan this project over a game of football in his backyard?
"I went over to Berlin to play the concerto with him, and he mentioned that his son loves playing football. I love playing football as well. So, the three of us had a quick game afterwards, which is a perfect end to any day, I think."
How does it feel to be able to perform the Elgar Cello Concerto and make your own statement about this work?
"It's an amazing feeling because I have always really, really loved this piece. I love the intimacy of this piece of music. I think the most beautiful and human pieces of music are often the most fragile — the kind of feeling that it could be broken at any point. And I think that's such a special part of this piece of music."
We also hear "Nimrod" from Elgar's Enigma variations, probably the most familiar section of that work, and you're giving it a new treatment. How did the arrangement for 6 cellos come to be, and are you featured on all the cello parts?
"No, for all of the cello parts for the 'Nimrod,' the Hymnus and the Faure Elegie, I assembled an ensemble of cellists, including some of my teachers and old teachers and lots of old friends. It was really nice to come together to record some pieces."
There's a piece that features you with a brother — he's playing violin. Tell me about this arrangement. Was it created especially for the two of you?
"It's called Prayer, and it's by the Swiss Jewish composer Ernest Bloch. This arrangement is one that we both made together, and we've performed many times. It's always amazing playing with Braimah, and this piece is one of my favorite pieces. It was really nice to be able to record it. The cello and violin are my two favorite instruments."
You're 20 years old, and you've had a lot of incredible opportunities and experiences already. Do you ever pinch yourself to remind yourself that this is all real?
"I don't know. My main focus is always to just develop as a musician, and my main goals usually deal with how I want to play, and all of these amazing opportunities are part of the development. They're not necessarily goals, they're just stops on a journey."
To hear the rest of my conversation, download the extended podcast on Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts.